After Oscars So White, when every single one of the 20 acting nominations were given to white thespians, Thursday’s Emmy nominations revealed far more diversity in the television industry. While the Motion Picture Academy responds well to certain high-end dramas such as Best Picture winner “12 Years a Slave,” those films just don’t come along that often. (So far Oscars 2017 look to tell a different story.)
Unlike the movie industry, in television more shows are aimed at more diverse audiences from the start, which gives 19,000 Emmy voters a wealth of options. The television industry casts a wide net, aiming shows at every audience segment, especially women, who are consistently underserved by the Hollywood studios, despite their strong box office stats.
In dramatic contrast, this year’s Emmy contenders put strong women front and center, matching wits and strength with their male co-stars. This season HBO’s drama frontrunner “Game of Thrones,” freed from adapting George R.R. Martin’s books, ratcheted up the power and dominion of its violent women, from vengeful Cersei (nominated Lena Headey) to mother of dragons Daenerys Targaryen (nominated Emilia Clarke), maturing sisters Sophie and Arya Stark (Sophie Turner and nominated Maisie Williams), Machiavellian witch Melisandre (Carice van Houten) and of course towering martial artist Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie).
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Netflix’s timely election drama “House of Cards” showed that President Frank Underwood (nominee Kevin Spacey) could not succeed without the wily strength of his equally terrifying wife and running mate Claire (nominee Robin Wright Penn). Surprise drama nominee “The Americans” (FX) features a tough, equally matched husband-and-wife team of Russian spies (nominees Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell). With nominated director Leslie Linka Glatter among the show’s executive producers, rival spy series “Homeland” (Showtime) has carried on with nominee Claire Danes in the lead as a brilliant and relentless (if mentally unstable) American CIA agent fighting terrorism.
In its final season, sisters Mary and Edith Crawley (Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael) took over Julian Fellowes’ “Downton Abbey,” showing that they were capable of running businesses, supported by the family matriarch (Maggie Smith), even if the young women did, finally, wind up the narrative by getting married.
Among the limited series, nominee Kirsten Dunst displayed her comedy chops as a determined housewife fighting for consciousness in “Fargo,” nominee Olivia Colman (whose role originally was written for a man) was the heart and brains behind AMC thriller “The Night Manager,” and nominee Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clarke stood up to the male gaze in “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.” Among the comedy series, oft-awarded frontrunner “Veep” (HBO) celebrates the wily eccentricities of its central character, played brilliantly by Emmy perennial Julia-Louis Dreyfuss, not to mention Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” starring nominee Ellie Kemper, and Amazon’s family drama “Transparent,” led by nominee Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman.
Left out of the drama contenders were Netflix’s multicultural, women-dominated prison saga “Orange Is the New Black,” which suffered under new rules for not being a comedy, as well as female-centric shows “Outlander” (Starz) and “The Good Wife.” (“The Affair” did score for supporting actress Maura Tierney.) And despite much media support, The CW’s innovative musical “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” had to settle for recognition for its original songs.
On the directing side, it was refreshing to see limited series directors include “The Night Manager” (AMC) Danish film import Susanne Bier, as well as “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” directors of color Anthony Hemingway and John Singleton. Outstanding Directing For A Variety Special included Beth McCarthy-Miller of “Adele Live In New York City,” Chris Rock of “Amy Schumer: Live At The Apollo” and “Lemonade,” directed by Kahlil Joseph and Beyoncé Knowles Carter.
And “Master of None’s” four nominations, including Comedy Series and Best Actor (Aziz Ansari), also made an impact on the nominations roster. And plenty of dramas dug into racial issues this year, from “Roots,” and “American Crime” to “The People v. OJ Simpson.”
The diversity of the acting nominees was up from 2015. Among this year’s 16 long-form acting categories (up from 11 last year), 21 out of 96 nominees, or 21 percent, were people of color, up from 18 in 2015. Twelve 2016 acting categories boasted at least one nominee of color, while only four had none. The dominant shows were “The People v. O.J. Simpson” with three African-American nominees (Courtney P. Vance, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Sterling K. Brown), “House of Cards” with two Outstanding Guest actors (Reg. E. Cathey and Mahershala Ali) and Comedy Series “black-ish” with two nominees (Anthony Anderson and Traces Ellis Ross).
All in all, a good showing. RuPaul Charles (“RuPaul’s Drag Race”) and Steve Harvey even penetrated the white enclave of Variety Hosts, while the Variety Talk Show category remained all white male: no Samantha Bee or “Full Frontal” (she was robbed), and Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart replacement Trevor Noah as well as Larry Wilmore were ignored. But there’s still room for improvement. Wagner Moura of “Narcos,” Jessie Smollett (“Empire”), Joe Morton (“Scandal”), Laurence Fishburne (“black-ish”), and John Leguizamo of “Bloodline” were among the snubbed, along with Oscar Isaac of “Show Me a Hero.”
While the Oscar prospects for a more diverse slate are improved this year, and the Academy voted to add twice as many new voters as last year (683, almost half of whom were women or people of color), as Emmy nominee Davis told Entertainment Tonight after the Oscars, “You can change the Academy, but if there are no black films being produced, what is there to vote for?”